by Gary North
At church on Sunday evening, I had a special treat: a concert by the Miracles. It cheered me up, and it seemed to cheer them up.
The Miracles are a group of 22 singers. They sing mainly in churches. What makes them unique is that all of them suffer from mental retardation. Some seem only mildly afflicted. Others are suffering from what most of us would regard as a considerable disability. Two of them clearly had Down's Syndrome. During the self-introduction period, one of the women had trouble remembering her last name.
I encourage you to listen. It will amaze you.
The group travels 15,000 miles a year. It performs about 50 times. The Center has a large tour bus that seats 50.
For over 25 years, the Miracles have performed around the country. The Reagan White House invited them to sing. They have sung at the Kennedy Center. Their music is worth hearing, but seeing them reminds us: there is hope in the midst of affliction. There is also productivity.
WHAT A GROUP CAN DO
If you clicked through and heard them and saw the photographs, you probably were impressed. The sound they make as a group is high quality. In person, they were not flawless, but they were as presentable as any well-trained choir in a local congregation.
Their performance included some solos. With one exception, their individual singing was not impressive. They just did not have the talent. There were missed notes. Yet as a group, the Miracles sound remarkable.
Individually, they have varying clarity of speech. Some spoke haltingly. Yet their enunciation in the singing was fine. I could hear every word. This is one of the great advantages of singing. People open their mouths and sing out confidently. When they do this, they can be understood.
There is a lesson here. It was the main lesson I drew from the concert. What we lack as individuals, we can compensate for through cooperation in a group effort.
Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up (Ecclesiastes 4:9—10).
The Miracles are a visual and audible testimony to the productivity of the division of labor. Each singer specializes. Each has a niche in the overall spectrum of sound. As soloists, with one exception, they would not have thrilled listeners. Yet, somehow, in a joint effort, what they produced was first-rate. Coming out of the mouths of these afflicted people, who individually seemed bereft of talent, the music was special — not special in the sense of "special education," but special in the sense of uniquely uplifting.
It was not that their music was perfect. It was that it was so much better than what we hear in person most of the time. When they walked onto the stage, they were visibly handicapped. Some stepped as aged people do: unsure, halting. It took some direction to get them lined up. Yet once they began singing, they were clearly in charge of the music . . . and the audience.
It was not that they were spectacular. It was that they were so much better than outsiders might otherwise expect. That, too, was an inspiration to the audience. It reminded every person in the room that it's possible to do a lot better than anyone expects, if you get the right training and support.
As individuals, each of us has doubts about his performance. Will we meet others' expectations? We hope so. We eventually find some niche in which we can perform up to others' standards. This is why most of us are afraid to branch out, to take risks. We fear public exposure. The fear of public failure keeps most people tied to familiar ways, familiar performances.
Those handicapped singers were given an opportunity to escape from the low expectations that most of us assume regarding the mentally retarded. We pigeon-hole them.
The wife of the minister who ran the Baddour Center decided, a quarter century ago, to risk putting together a choir at the Baddour Center. She was no doubt aware that the project, if successful, would help to change public attitudes toward retarded people. In the introduction of the group and the hand-out literature, this goal is stated clearly.
When the concert was over, the audience rose to give the Miracles a standing ovation. The Miracles could see, once again, that they had exceeded the expectations of the audience. They could enjoy what, as individuals, most people never experience: the visible, enthusiastic acclamation of a crowd. They knew that their work had exceeded expectations.
Service to others is important for our sense of self-worth. So is positive feedback. The Miracles provide a service. They get the satisfaction of pleasing thousands of people every year. Someone asked Bob Hope why he didn't retire and go fishing. "Fish don't applaud," Hope replied.
Not all of the residents are part of the Miracles.
But most of them work.
They live at a 120-acre community center 30 miles down the road in Senatobia, Mississippi: the Baddour Center. The Center provides housing and guidance for up to 172 residents. Currently, there are 166.
I got in my van and drove down to see the Center. The facility has a manicured look. Five of the residents maintain the grounds.
The residences are very nice: multi-resident homes. From the outside, they look like upper-middle-class brick homes. The residents are not being warehoused.
Some of the residents who can work are employed at the Center by FedEx, whose national headquarters are in Memphis, close to the Mississippi border, 35 miles north of Senatobia. FedEx farms out simple operations to Baddour. Others work in the horticulture program, growing flowers. The organization also receives donations. There is a vocational training program. All of this is privately funded.
The desire of each of us to have meaningful work is built into us. The young child who wants to help a parent in some task is the norm. Shiftlessness must be learned and subsidized. The Baddour Center takes advantage of this inner impulse. Its website says:
The desire to belong, to contribute and to be productive is important to all of us. To be a team member, to feel as if we are a part of something worthwhile, to know that we are making a difference — it makes a day's work worth getting up for — and it makes us as individuals take pride in ourselves.
The Baddour Center strives to incorporate these characteristics in its innovative and creative vocational habilitation programs by emphasizing production, quality and a sense of confidence to the residents. Research has proven that by having a job, adults with mental retardation (or should we say developmental disabilities) are able to learn valuable daily living skills and reliable work habits while building self-esteem through earning a paycheck.
The Baddour Center offers residents training by professional staff and the opportunity to work in a positive, encouraging work environment. As a result, residents and day clients deliver customers quality service while considering themselves employees of the contracted companies who perform important job functions.
Residents work about four hours a day. They are paid in terms of their productivity. FedEx thinks it is getting its money's worth.
SPECIALIZATION AND OUTPUT
The group's musical director has a degree in music therapy. I had not known that such a profession existed. After the concert, she told me that it has been a recognized field for half a century.
She said that the training is aimed at providing services for several forms of affliction. People who have had brain injuries are helped. Even some Alzheimer's victims are helped. It was obvious that members of the Miracles had been helped.
As more capital is made available through thrift, the market allows specialization. A field that did not exist in my youth now offers workers the opportunity to serve handicapped people as a career. Society makes such service opportunities possible, either through charitable donations or, in the case of the Miracles, income for services rendered.
This is the miracle of capital. Thrift makes tools and training available to all of us. Our increased output provides us with wealth that, a century ago, would have been only a dream, and two centuries ago would have been a hallucination.
Donations, like everything else in a free society, get more bang for the buck as specialization increases. The free market offers ever-increasing specialization, which in turn creates opportunities for charitable giving that did not exist a generation ago. We get richer and have more to give. The compounding process increases everyone's wealth and output. Workers can better match their skills with opportunities to serve. Donors can give to those narrow support activities that more closely match their priorities. The music therapist has been on staff for only three years.
The Miracles were singing before she arrived. The therapy was having its effect before a certified therapist arrived. But what was an isolated experiment in Senatobia, Mississippi in 1979 can now be more readily copied. There are now specialists who can repeat the miracle.
THE NICHE PRINCIPLE
When you hear the Miracles, you get a lesson in the niche principle. Each of those singers contributes phrasing and tone in a precise way. As soloists, they are incapable of providing a masterful effort. But in the group, the output is near-professional in quality.
Why? Because, through music theory and training, each of those singers matches his limited range to a specific part of the whole. Someone has arranged the music. Someone else has worked with them as individuals and as a group to fit together the output of each participant.
There has to be a plan in the broadest sense: music, training, and practice. These singers are also highly motivated. Motivation is not a matter of IQ. Attending one concert by the Miracles ends any doubts in that regard. The question is: How to provide motivation with an environment in which it can flourish?
Listening to them sing reminded me of the miracle of the free market. As individuals, we have more potential than may be evident at first glance, but without cooperation in an integrated, structured environment, our work resembles those solos: not impressive. Yet because of the free market's principle of voluntarism, open entry (the legal right to make a bid), and the information provided by the price system (success indicators), we can make beautiful "music." There is no earthly orchestra director, but the market provides outlets for our various skills and personal motivations.
We get paychecks rather than applause. We are more like those retarded FedEx workers than the Miracles. But, day by day, we contribute something to society, and society pays us back.
There is an element of the miraculous associated with the Miracles. The process is repeatable, so in this sense it isn't miraculous. Yet the performance is so improbable, according to our everyday experience, that it seems like a miracle. We are reminded of how much people can achieve if there is an opportunity, motivation, capital, and dedication . . . and specialization.
I was reminded of how much I can achieve because of capital formation. Yet I was also reminded that, compared to the ratio of audible output to visible input, these 22 retarded people are way ahead of me in this narrow area of service. Starting with what looks like almost no talent, they produce something of great value. I don't mean just the music. I mean the reminder of how blessed each of us is who has an IQ above 95, and how wonderful it is to live in an era in which capital investment has produced 2% growth per year for almost 250 years. We are the heirs of a discovery — private property — that took thousands of years before it was really believed. Once believed and implemented, however haltingly, it has produced a miracle.
May 4, 2005
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